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A civilized death


A civilized death

I recently had three experiences that dredged up memories of the early AIDS crisis. I sat on a panel with long-time activist — and genius — Sarah Schulman and watched two documentaries: the excellent Vito, about the life, times and death of noted activist and critic Vito Russo, creator of the book The Celluloid Closet; and a PBS Frontline doc about AIDS in black America.

Like many people of my generation, this is not a trip I enjoy taking. The recalling of fear, grief and anger is still too raw and fresh despite nearly 30 years of living in the ever-evolving plague. This sometimes makes it easy to forget that, while the HIV virus has had so many negative effects on the world, the emergency it created in the queer community also effected some positive change. Certainly our sense of community and caring for one another was enhanced by the battles we fought, while the efforts of ACT UP changed the way the entire Western world now looks at drug testing and effective medical campaigning.

Another change far less discussed is the way AIDS made those of us who were experiencing the crisis firsthand aware of the need for merciful euthanasia in the cases of people with extreme sickness, debility or pain.

I know a number of people who had pacts with lovers/friends/family to take care of business when things got to the point where the sick person’s situation became too much for him or her to bear. One very close friend used a hospital pillow to smother his best friend when that friend’s entreaties to help him die became so desperate there was really no other choice. We were both in our early 30s at the time. Within a year I would be at this same friend’s bedside as his lover held his hand and his family stood watch while he slipped out of this world, unlike the friend he had killed, relatively pain free. We had no death pact, but I often wonder if we had, would I have been able to go through with it?

You have only to look into the eyes of someone who’s actually done this thing to realize how great a toll it takes. It stays with you forever. Mentally healthy people have an innate instinct to preserve life at all costs. To kill someone else, even in the most trying of circumstances, is to also kill some part of one’s self.

And yet there is nothing more soul destroying than to watch someone in physical or mental anguish suffer with no possible hope of relief. And, without going into too much graphic detail, trust me when I say people who dealt with those dying of AIDS in the first decade and a half of the crisis quickly learned there are an endless number of painful, disfiguring and disgusting ways people can die.

This is why I believe in legalized euthanasia for those who have the mental and physical capacity to make this decision for themselves. Like anything else, there is the potential for abuse, particularly with the elderly and disabled, so there must be safeguards in place to protect such people, but that’s no excuse for stopping those who can make a choice from doing what they want with their lives — or deaths.

The state has no business legislating what adults can or cannot do with their bodies, and the religious have no right to impose their morality on anyone else.

As a gay man with no children, I am keenly aware that should I become too incapacitated to care for myself properly later in life there will not be a lot of resources available to help me. The idea of being in a situation where I can’t care for myself, for whatever reason, is one of the worst I can imagine. So I’ve made it clear in my will that no heroic efforts should be made to sustain my life if the situation is too hopeless, and, more importantly, I’ve had a long talk with someone I love and trust about my wishes should I ever end up in an untenable situation.

I hope, if and when that happens, we live in a civilized enough society for a physician to ease me out of my pain in a humane and professional manner because people should not be forced to kill those they love. It’s just not civilized.
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All Canadians already have the legal right to end their own lives. If a person doesn't want government interfearnce they simply have to stop their treatments. Euthanasia gives other people the right to kill you. It's not about giving you the right to kill yourself, you already have that right.
The most relevant article in a long time
Excellent writing about a universally relevant topic --Euthenasia. This topic has also touched me before. For those who really do not want to live, filling out a “Living Will” with a DNR --Do Not Resuscitate-- instruction is useful. Here is another though on this issue. Every living organism naturally ceases to live without food and water. “Fasting unto death” is an idea that has been practiced by kings, religious people and common folk, over millennia. One can make it a personal choice and it is not illegal. Fasting on water alone --no food-- for 7 to 10 days is not uncommon as a cleanse and cure for disease. It can be uncomfortable. But fasting unto death on water alone can take several months of suffering to finally die. Refusing food and water can result in death within a week! This apparently is not an intrusion into the body and not considered to be suicide or murder and not illegal. Medication or suffocation is faster, but is an intrusion into the natural span of a life. For those who have some fear of religious ideologies, or fear of the law, this may be a consideration. I believe that asking someone to kill you is unfair, even when you are suffering. But fasting unto death can be a personal choice. You can ask friends to help you through your own process. That is what I would do. I do agree that people should be able to make their own choices about their own life or death. This was just an expression of a personal opinion.
30 years later
and I'm still shuddering at my recollections, tears brought to my eyes, but hey it's about government interference and the right of euthanasia. Fuck the government! We should all have the legal right to take our own lives when we want without leaving our loved ones destitute as a result. Fascists!
Thank you Brad
I never seem to have the ability to articulate, my heart as well as you do.

When I thought getting a PHD was important I had started the process to have it centred on the topic of Euthanasia. The struggle is separating the the whats best for them vs whats best for me.
Support legalized euthanasia
I agree with Brad Fraser and also support legalized euthanasia for those who have the mental and physical capacity to make the decision to die for themselves. Legalized euthanasia respects the decision of a person who, as a result of a medical or physical condition, finds it too painful or difficult to continue. It will also reduce the financial burden that the person's family, governments and society bear in providing costly medical care and other services to the person. Legalized euthanasia will free up scarce resources for those people who want to live and whose lives are worth living.
This is a touching piece. I don't want to take away from that, however, that is precisely the problem with this debate. Emotionally we all want to ease peoples suffering, but we must think of the real world application of this. You and other euthanasia advocates continuously say that the, ''state has no right to legislate what adults can and can't do with their bodies.'' yet you also want safeguards in place to protect mentally disabled people. That alone is already legislation. Also creating a medical protocol for the application of euthanasia requires, legislation and input from doctors, nurses and other health care professionals. If anything, the application of euthanasia will create even more legislation about what people can and cannot do with their bodies and what health care professionals can and cannot do to you. I am not a religious person. I am an atheist. but even I believe that giving the state, doctors and nurses, the ability to legislate when a person is qualified to die or more importantly when they are qualified to take another persons life is far to much power for another human being to have. This debate is not about freedom it is about creating a legal and moral framework that allows for the state mandated death of other people. Since they are the ones who ultimately license medical professionals and will be the ones who deicide who qualifies for euthanasia.
Absolutely fantastic. I so rarely read about the struggles of the early days of AIDS and that part brought up so many memories. And don't worry Brad...I'll take care of you, if necessary...
thought provoking as always
Although AIDS is not something with which I have any personal experience, I have watched friends struggle with losing loved ones to Alzheimer's, and I am watching my own 90 year old mother fade after suffering a stroke last year. She was raised by a doctor and has long been outspoken about how ridiculous it is that we can end the suffering of our family pet but not an elderly, terminally ill human family member.
I am sitting in an internet cafe with tears in my eyes after reading this. So very well said.
Things to think about
Brad - wonderful column about hard things. You were amazing on that panel as was Sarah. For any folks wanting to listen to it, they can get it here. The panel discussion was focused around Sarah Schulman's recent book - Gentrification of the Mind. Which does look at the effect of the AIDS crisis on her generation and the generations that followed. A great read.

Here's the link.
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